David Hume

THIS celebrated historian was born at Edinburgh, on the 26th of April, 1711. He was of a good family, both by father and mother, and the former dying whilst he was an infant, he was brought up under the care of his mother, whom he describes as a women of singular merit. A passion for literature took possession of him at a very early period of his education, and, in consequence of his sobriety and studious disposition, he was destined by his family for the law; but 'while they fancied,' he says in his autobiography, I was poring upon Voet and Vinnius, Cicero and Virgil were the authors which I was secretly devouring.' His health, however, becoming impaired by sedentary application, he, in 1634, went to Bristol, with a view of engaging in mercantile pursuits, but found them unsuitable to his disposition, that in a few months afterwards he took up his residence in France, and laid down a plan of life which he steadily and successfully pursued. resolved,' he says, 'to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune; to maintain unimpaired my independency; and to regard every object as contemptible, except the improvement of my talents in literature.'

After a stay of three years abroad he returned to England, and, in 1738, published his Treatise of Human Nature, the fate of which he describes by saying, 'it fell dead born from the press.' Of too sanguine a temperament to be discouraged, he continued his literary labors, and in 1742, printed, at Edinburgh, the first part of his Essays, which were received in a manner that fully compensated for his former disappointments. In 1745, he went to England as tutor to the young Marqueis of Annandale, and after remaining in that situation for a twelvemonth, he stood candidate for the professorship of moral philosophy at Edinburgh, but although strongly supported, the notoriety of his sceptical opinions prevented his success. In 1746, he accepted an invitation from General St. Clair to attend him as a secretary to his expedition, which ended in an incursion on the coast of France; and, in 1747, he accompanied him in his military embassy to the courts of Vienna and Turin. During his residence at the latter place, imagining that his Treatise of Human Nature had failed of success from the manner rather than the matter, he published the first part of the work anew, under the title of an Inquiry concerning Human Understanding. Its new shape, however, made but little difference in its success; and on his return from Italy, Hume observes, had the mortification to find all England in a ferment, on account of Dr. Middleton's Free Inquiry, while my performance was entirely overlooked and neglected.'

His disappointment was increased by the failure of a new edition of his Essays; but borne up by the natural cheerfulness of his disposition, he, in 1749, went to his brother's residence in Scotland, and composed his Political Discourses, and Inquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, both of which were published at Edinburgh in 1752. At this time his former publications had begun to attract notice, and more than one answer had been written to his Essays, of which, however, he took no notice, having made a fixed resolution, which he inflexibly maintained, never to reply to any body. His Political Discourses were favorably received both abroad and at home, but his Principles of Morals, although, in his own opinion, incomparably the best of all his writings, came, as he says, unnoticed and. unobserved into the world. In the year of its application, already mentioned, he was chosen librarian to the Faculty of Advocates, when the large library, of which he had the command, suggested to him the idea of writing the History of England, Being frightened,' he says, 'with the notion of continuing a narrative through a period of seventeen hundred years, I commenced with the accession of the House of Stuart; an epoch when I thought the misrepresentation of faction began chiefly to take place.' The history of this period appeared in one quarto volume, in 1754; but instead of meeting with the applause which he confesses he expected, it was assailed , as he tells us, 'by one cry of reproach, disapprobation, and even detestation.' The only individuals of literary consideration from whom he received encouragement to proceed, were the primates of England and Ireland, Drs. Herring and Stone; whilst the sale was so inconsiderable, that, in the course of a twelvemonth, only forty-five copies were disposed of. He attributed the opposition it met with to the regret expressed by the author of the fate of Charles the First and the Earl of Stafford; but, in all probability, it arose from the contemptuous tone in which he spoke of adverse religious parties.

He was so far discouraged by the reception of his work, that he resolved to quit his country for ever, and pass the remainder of his days in France. The war, however, breaking out between that country and England, his intention was frustrated, and he determined to persevere in his historical design. In the meantime he published his Natural History of Religion, which was answered by Warburton in the name of Dr. Hurd, in pamphlet,' says our author, that gave me some consolation for the otherwise indifferent reception of my performance.' In 1756, appeared his second volume of the History of England, containing the period from the death of Charles the First till the Revolution; and, in 1759, it was succeeded by the History of the House of Tudor. This performance was not less obnoxious than his first published volume, but being now grown ' callous against the impressions of public folly, ' he devoted himself, with calm perseverance, of the early part of the English History, which he completed in two volumes, in 1761.

Notwithstanding the altogether unfavorable reception of his History of England, which had now become a chief standard work, our author received a sum for the copyright, which, together with a pension he enjoyed through the influence of Lord Bute, had procured him not only independence but opulence. He therefore meditated passing the rest of his life in philosophical retirement, when, in 1763, he accepted an invitation to accompany the Earl of Hertford on his embassy to Paris, where his literary reputation obtained for him a reception, which, after the apathy of his own countrymen, astonished and delighted him. He remained at the French capital, in the situation of chargé d'affaires, until the beginning of 1766, when he returned to England in company with the celebrated Rousseau, who is said to have repaid the delicate and generous behavior of our author with his usual ingratitude. In 1767, he was appointed under secretary of state to Mr. Conway, and after holding that situation for about two years, he returned to Edinburgh, in 1769, with a fortune of £1,000 a year. The next four years of his life were passed in the enjoyment of ease and reputation; the succeeding portion is best described towards the close of his autobiography, dated April 18th, 1776. In spring 1775 , he says, I was struck with a disorder in my bowels, which at first gave me no alarm, but has since, as I apprehend it, become mortal and incurable. I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment's abatement of my spirits; insomuch, that were I to name a period of my life, which I should most choose to pass over again, I might be tempted to point to this latter period. I possess the same ardor as ever in duty, and the same gayety in company. I consider, besides, that a man of sixty-five, by dying, cuts off only a few years of infirmities; and though I see many symptoms of my literary reputation's breaking out at last with additional lustre, I know that I could have but a few years to enjoy it. It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present.'

After having finished the account of his life, he, at the request of his friends, went to England for the improvement of his health, but returned with no benefit, after a few weeks' stay at London and Bath. He now employed himself in correcting his works for a new edition, and considering himself as a dying man, talked familiarly and even jocularly of his approaching dissolution. To one of his friends, who, struck by his cheerfulness, could not help expressing hopes of his recovery, he said, Your hopes are groundless; I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire.' His weakness increased daily, until the afternoon of the 26th of August 1776, when he expired, says Dr. Black, ' in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it.'

Hume seemed to have formed a very just estimate of his own character: he describes himself as a man of mild disposition, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humor, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all his passions. This account of himself is fully corroborated by Dr. Adam Smith, who speaks of his social and intellectual qualities in the highest strain of eulogy: Upon the whole,' says the doctor, in his concluding remarks upon the death of Hume, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as, perhaps, the nature of human frailty will permit.' Of this frailty he exhibited no inconsiderable portion in treating all systems of religion as founded in superstition and, perhaps, there was a levity of conduct immediately preceding his death, which was beyond the dignity even of a philosopher, as it was certainly very opposite to the unpretending resignation of a dying Christian. His person had no affinity to his mind; his face was broad and flat, his mouth wide, his eyes vacant, and the corpulency of his whole person is said to have been better fitted to communicate the idea of a turtle-eating alderman, than of a refined philosopher. At Turin he fell in love with a lady, and addressing her, declared that he was " abime aneanti." " Oh! pour aneanti," replied the lady, " ce n'est en effet qu'une operation tres naturelle de votre systeme."

In his intellectual character he takes his place in the first rank of modern philosophical sceptics, and it must be confessed that few writers have insisted on their theories with more vigor, self-command, or ability. The merit of his History of England is now generally allowed, though notwithstanding his own claim to perfect impartiality, prejudices, particularly in favor of the House of Stuart, appear in his work, and he has been accused of coloring facts to support his favorite and somewhat erroneous position that the English constitution cannot be considered as a regular plan of liberty before the reigns of the first two Stuarts. Upon the whole, however, few historians are more free from prejudice than Hume; nor is he often excelled in the clearness and eloquence of his style. About seven years after his death appeared an Essay on Suicide, generally believed to have been the production of his pen, and which, it is said, would have appeared in his lifetime, had not the booksellers been afraid to publish it.

An anecdote of Hume is told in one of Dr. Beattie's letters to Mrs. Montague, which shows that however sincere a sceptic our author may have been, he admitted the propagation of his opinions might be destructive to the morals, if not the happiness, of at least one half of the intellectual world. Mr. Hume,' says Beattie, was boasting to Dr. Gregory, that among his disciples in Edinburg, he had the honor to reckon many of the fair sex. " Now tell me," said the doctor, " whether if you had a wife or a daughter, you would wish them to be your disciples? Think well before you answer me; for, I assure you, that, whatever your answer is, I will not conceal it." Mr. Hume, with a smile, and some hesitation, made this reply: " No; I believe scepticism may be too sturdy a virtue for a woman." At another time, Mrs. Mallet, wife of the poet, meeting him at an assembly, boldly accosted him in these words: 'Mr. Hume, give me leave to introduce myself to you; we Deists ought to know each other.' Madam, replied he, am no Deist; I do not style myself so; neither do I desire 
to be known by that appellation.'